Oct. 2, 2008
Complete Release in PDF Format
COLUMBIA, S.C. -
The Gamecocks wrap up a four-match road swing with contests at Mississippi State and Alabama this weekend. Friday's contest in Starkville begins at 8 p.m. EDT at the Newell-Grissom Building, while Sunday's affair in Tuscaloosa has a 2:30 p.m. EDT first serve at the C.A.V.E.
Both the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide enter the weekend with 1-2 Southeastern Conference marks, both falling on the road at Kentucky and Tennessee before beating Auburn at home last weekend. Mississippi State is 6-8 on the season overall, but four of those wins have come at home. Alabama, one of the five SEC teams to make last year's NCAA Tournament, is at 8-4 overall and have dropped just one match at home in seven outings.
Belita Salters Continues Record Book Assault
Redshirt senior Belita Salters has done a lot during her time in Columbia, and the record books show that. She already stands in the top 10 all-time in hitting percentage, solo blocks, total blocks and blocks per set. The PDF contains a chart of all the career lists she could move up on this season, including the numbers of the people ahead of her. Last season, Salters recorded 33 solo blocks and 128 total, averaging 1.21 blocks a game, which stood 10th in the Southeastern Conference in 2007.
The middle blockers for South Carolina have turned in some stellar performances over the past two seasons, with redshirt senior Belita Salters writing her name in the single-match record books twice already in 2008. She hit a career-best .543 (21-2-35) in the five-set victory over UNLV, the third-highest average for a Gamecock in a five-set match. She followed that with a .536 (17-2-28) mark in the victory at Rhode Island in the Art Carmichael Classic, which stands fourth on the five-set match charts.
After watching Salters put her name in the record book twice, sophomore middle blocker Megan Laughlin decided to get in on the action. Her .652 (15-0-23) against the College of Charleston ranks as the fifth-best output in a three-set match in history, replacing Lori Rowe's .636 versus Southern Miss on Oct. 15, 1983.
Is It That Simple?
The Gamecocks enter the weekend with an 11-2 record, and the match-by-match stats tell us one thing about the losses. If South Carolina hits above .175, it wins. In the team's two losses, they hit .085 and .168. Their worst performance in a win was last Sunday against Arkansas, when the squad hit .182. Those two percentages also helped the opponents, Arizona State and Mississippi, to top the Garnet and Black in that category. South Carolina is 11-0 when it out-hits its opposition. The Gamecocks are also 10-0 when it has less hitting errors than the other side.
Winning Streak Snapped
The Gamecocks put together just the sixth winning streak of 10 or more matches in history. The 10-match skein that ended against Mississippi equals the longest streaks in 1978 and 2000. Just three streaks lasted longer in Gamecock lore: an 11-game run in 2002, which is the last year the Gamecocks made the NCAA Tournament, and two different streaks in 1983. That squad had a 12-match string to start the season and a 14-match streak near the end of the year. That final skein was snapped by Florida State in the Metro Conference Tournament Championship, keeping the Gamecocks out of the field of 28 for that year's NCAA Tournament.
Strong Schedule Brings Gamecocks Unique Recognition
The Carolina Gamecocks have put themselves in impressive company. The squad has defeated five teams that played in last year's NCAA Tournament, and only one other team not currently ranked in the nation's top 25 has matched that. Texas A&M has also defeated five teams, and the comparison to determine whose wins are better is close. The Gamecocks defeated three teams that won in the first round, (Dayton, Clemson and LSU), while the Aggies have victories over BYU, a 2007 regional finalist, and Oklahoma, who won its first-round contest but fell to Florida in the second. The rest of South Carolina's wins (UNLV and College of Charleston) could be seen as stronger than Texas A&M's (American, Siena and Texas State).
Among the Elite Early in 2008
South Carolina's early-season record stands among the very best in the country. Entering the week, there were just four undefeated teams among the 315 full-fledged Division I teams in the country. The Gamecocks are two steps down, part of the 21 teams that just have two losses on the year. Florida and Kentucky both join the Gamecocks as SEC squads in that top 10 percent.
Digs and Serve Reception Key to Gamecocks' Start
When South Carolina's season ended last November, the coaching staff immediately made a goal to improve the team's defense, particularly digs and serve receptions. It seems that hard work has paid off. The Gamecocks currently lead the SEC and stand 34th nationally with 16.00 digs per set. That's just 1.2 digs off the squad's pace from last season when each set contained five more points.
Something that might be missed, however, is the fact the team's serve reception has also improved. Last year, South Carolina made 1.3 errors per set and successfully received a serve 94.5 percent of the time. The 2008 percentage ties last season's, but the squad now gives up 0.9 aces per set. In fact, the squad's opponents have just 46 aces on the season while making 84 service errors in the process. The Gamecocks' serving game has cut down on the errors, making just seven more errors than their 52 aces this season.
Blocking Is a Team Effort
With a lot of experience back, it makes working together easier. That has really come into play with the Gamecocks' blocking efforts in 2008. The team still is led by Belita Salters and Megan Laughlin in the middle, but they have gotten a lot of help up front. Five of the six regular front-row players average around a block per match (0.3 blocks per set) in 2008, with the other checking in at 0.24 blocks per set, just below that threshold. Last season, five Gamecocks ended the year above that 0.3 mark.
A Pair of Streaks End, One Survives
Two Gamecocks saw their consecutive sets-played streak come to an end during the opening weekend of SEC play. Middle blockers Belita Salters and Megan Laughlin both missed the match against LSU due to different ailments. That ended streaks of 141 and 140 straight sets played, respectively, for the pair. The longest current streak is held by Ivana Kujundzic, who has played in 141 straight sets, dating back to the match against Boston College in 2007.
Maybe Not a Team Effort, But Avoiding Blocks Are Good, Too
So far the Gamecocks have been adept at avoiding the opposition's blocking schemes. South Carolina has been blocked an average of 1.45 times per set this season, which ranks third in the SEC. Alabama leads the way with a 1.31 makr, while Kentucky's opponents have maintained a 1.32 blocks-per-set average this season.
Leader May Be Near Constant, but Secondary Help Coming from Everywhere
As shown below, Ivana Kujundzic has led the Gamecocks eight of the 13 matches this season in kills. What that chart doesn't show you is how different people have all contributed to the cause in big ways during different matches. Five others have stepped up behind Kujundzic's lead on most nights, while, when others have taken over the top attacker spot, Kujundzic has been right behind them. Megan Laughlin has ranked second in kills on five times, just one more than her middle blocking teammate Belita Salters. Salters, however, has led the squad in three matches, one more than Laughlin. In different matches, Meredith Moorhead and Annie Thomas have also played strong in the sidekick role, each ranking second in kills once. And freshman Teresa Stenlund did her best Laughlin or Salters impression during her one start, providing a great second option on offense.
Kujundzic Takes Home Weekly Awards
Junior outside hitter Ivana Kujundzic picked up the Gamecocks' first SEC award of the season, claiming the Offensive Player of the Week certificate on Monday, Sept. 15. Kujundzic also earned the CVU.com National Player of the Week award, the first national award for a Gamecock volleyball player since Sept. 16, 2006. The Subotica, Serbia, native averaged 4.36 kills and 3.09 digs per set with a .355 hitting percentage during the Carolina Challenge. She nearly single-handedly won the fifth set against archrival Clemson, recording six kills, including four that staved off match point or set up Carolina for the win.
Gamecocks Show Skills in Non-Conference
Comparing the stats from each weekend is one bit of evidence about how much hard work during practice pays off for a team. The Gamecocks increased their offense in each weekend tournament, starting at 12.4 kills and 11.1 assists per set at Arizona State, moving to 13.5 kills and 11.4 assists in the Art Carmichael Classic before breaking out for 15.8 kills and 14.8 assists in the Carolina Challenge. The Garnet and Black's hitting percentage has also climbed each week, starting at .197 before shooting to .308 and .324. The defense has been steady, never dropping below 15.7 digs per frame.
Garnet Bring Back Majority of Production
South Carolina should be able to pick up where they left off in 2007. In most major statistical categories, the squad returns 85 percent of the production from last season. The highest percentage back comes in assists and digs, as 94 percent of last year's totals are back. The squad also has 85 percent of its aces back, including nine of the 10 players that registered at least one. Eighty-six percent of the kills return, including the top four in kills last season. The only category that "suffered" a loss is blocks, as a mere 74 percent (and the squad's top two blockers) are back for 2008.
Series History Against Mississippi State
In 28 matches against the Western Division Bulldogs, the Carolina Gamecocks hold a 20-8 mark. Last season, South Carolina swept the meetings, getting revenge for State's sweep in 2006. In Starkville, the series is closer, with the Garnet and Black holding a 5-4 advantage.
Scouting the Bulldogs
Mississippi State stands at 6-8 on the season and 1-2 in the Southeastern Conference, defeating Auburn in a five-set match last weekend. The Bulldogs are hitting a league-worst .150 as a team, while they find themselves at the bottom of the conference in assists, kills and digs. State, however, does get a large amount of aces, leading the league with 1.75 per set. The squad's best player, Cristina Jucan, has not seen any SEC action so far this season. She averages 2.69 kills per set. Ioana Demian currently leads the Bulldogs with her 2.79 kills per set. Ashley Newsome tops State in hitting percentage (.223) and blocks per set (1.12), while she also ranks third on the team in kills per set (1.88). Demian leads the team in aces per set (0.31), but four different Bulldogs average over 0.2 per frame. Kayla Woodard tops the Maroon and White with a 2.86 digs-per-set average.
Series History Against Alabama
The Crimson Tide holds an 18-13 lead in the meetings against South Carolina, including a 10-4 mark in Tuscaloosa. Last season, the Gamecocks split with Alabama, taking the final match of the season in Columbia, 3-0, over the eventual NCAA Tournament team.
Scouting the Crimson Tide
Alabama holds an 8-4 overall record and a 1-2 mark entering this weekend. While things are close in kills, assists and digs per set, the Crimson Tide hold nearly one-point advantages in blocks and aces per frame. Brooks Webster leads the squad with her 3.80 kills per set, stands second in digs per set (3.05) while ranking third on the team in hititng percentage (.275). Setter Lauren Martin dished out 9.41 assists per set while ranking second with a .290 hitting percentage. Martin averages 1.14 kills per set. Alyssa Meuth ranks second on the team with her 2.41 kills per frame, while Lindsey Buteyn is right behind her at 1.86. Calli Johnson is the squad's leading hitter by percentage (.340), averaging 1.43 kills and 1.00 blocks per set. Libero Amy Pauly digs 3.80 balls per set. Defensive specialist Mary Catherine Aune once again leads the SEC with her 0.60 aces per set, while she ranks third on the squad with 2.14 digs per game.